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“Arcane complexity is not profundity.”
To observe this maxim, myself: “Big words and complicated thinking don’t have to mean much.”
This does not mean that the difficult is always a smoke screen. You have to evaluate. Sometimes it’s significant and sometimes it’s just cant.
Rocket science and particle physics are complex; hard to learn and hard to understand. That’s because there’s so much there to know, and you have to know it in order to get from point A to point B. You can be sure your knowledge is significant because you can shoot up a rocket, make the payload orbit a specific body millions of miles away, and send back hard data; pictures; rocks, even.
Or, to cement the point, you shoot it up and it glitches; proving that you didn’t know enough and your understanding was incomplete.
In thinking about life (which is philosophy, if you must label) the best stuff is direct, applicable to the situation at hand, and simple.
Simple; not simplistic.
Simple is easy to understand but sometimes hard to arrive at. You may have to sweat through a lot of false leads and dead ends to get there. It really helps if somebody else has done some of the work for you. That’s what we call “Wisdom of the Ages.”
Simplistic is easy. Too easy. It skims the surface and misses most of the reality. It isn’t wisdom; just slogans.
The Golden Rule is simple; “Just say no!” is simplistic.
“Just say no!” is about as useful as “Be good.” It’s simplistic because it ignores a whole raft of human nature, most particularly the millions-of-years-old and probably genetic tendency of young people to ignore the advice of their elders, band together in clans of their own invention, take risks and rebel. (This is without even figuring in the really hairy prime directive; “Reproduce.” Which can negate a whole spectrum of “no’s.)
The Golden Rule is truly simple because it is nearly as easy to understand as “Just say no!” but it applies directly to most of human interaction in the most fundamental terms, and in specific case by case.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or the more negative East Asian equivalent, which translates roughly as “Don’t do anything to anybody which you don’t want coming back your way.” It’s ethics and morality defined as self-interest. Your own butt is at stake, whether the stakes are comfort or cold survival.
Now, once you understand the concept, you may choose to violate or ignore it, but the consequences are on your head. And somewhere in the back of your mind you are always aware of that. Whether it inspires your conscience or your fear, it’s useful; to you and to the rest of us.
But how can you decide whether one particular morass of complex "facts" and head-busting concepts is significant, or just somebody trying to convince you that he’s smarter than you are?
You’re bound to have to waste some time here, because some of the best thinkers are lousy communicators, and some of the best communicators are wimpy thinkers.
There are a couple of rules-of-thumb, though. Hard science is “hard” because it’s testable (like that space probe, above) in real time. Conclusions and theories based thereon will have a lower component of bullshit than a “soft” science like sociology or (God save us all!) economics.
All thinking rooted in metaphysics is anchored in thin air. It’s all made up out of the firing of your own brain cells and it’s dependable only as it actually applies to your life and the way you live it. You’re strictly on your own in this district!
Aesthetics is a whole ‘nother country. What is beautiful or moving or inspiring would logically appear to be pretty individual, but there is a surprising amount of agreement on specific works of art. The aesthetic world is full of fads and fashion, because most people don’t really know what they like until somebody else tells them it’s safe to like it, so the test, here, is staying power. If it’s still around after 400 years or so, there may be something to it. Even if it only survives its own generation.
(I recall a classical musician acquaintance, back in the 1960’s, laughing about some respected music critic equating the Beatles with Mozart. The critic may have been bit overboard, but my friend - as it seems to have turned out - shouldn’t have been so scornful.)
In any case, if it moves you, in more than one year, context or situation of your life it’s undoubtedly worth while. If it inspires you to be a more complete or functional human being it may be art. If it does the same for a lot of other people, it probably is. So Norman Rockwell qualifies, I guess, in spite of the snobbier critics. All those paintings on velvet, especially the ones of Elvis, are probably just pleasant noise; elevator music for the eyes. (Thomas Kinkaid is a marketing phenomenon; rather akin to computer spam.)
Meanwhile: The implied, and generally accepted, contest between science and religion for the minds of men (and women) is a red herring.
If one is conventionally religious, one can successfully rationalize away the most compelling scientific argument.
If one is not religious, religion is irrelevant to the pursuit and revelations of science. The two never meet on the same battlefield, except occasionally in the minds of certain conflicted individuals who are trying to do science with an emotional background of True Belief.
If there is a contest at all it is between science and two metaphysical realms which are essentially apart from religion; aesthetics and the humanities.
I hope we have established that any human mental activity is primarily metaphysical; even the pursuit of scientific "truth." The firing of synapses and the transfer of electrochemical impulses may be pure physics, but the integrative process that this physics makes possible is individual consciousness, which is always metaphysical.
This is one reason that science is so difficult to do well; and why the techniques of Scientific Method are at such pains to factor out the prejudices and motives of the individual consciousness.
The humanities and aesthetics demand different techniques; and different still from one another.
When we speak of "searching for truth" in the study of history, we are talking about a very different thing from physical reality. Scientific truths are pretty constant, from one experiment to another. The speed of light in a vacuum may be repeatedly and eternally refined, but only by the addition of more decimal places, as the instruments of measurement become more sophisticated.
Any objective historian knows that he will never know the "truths" of the Peloponnesian Wars; the best he can glean from the most authoritative sources from this 2500 years' distance is a few anecdotes and analogies which he may apply to events closer in time and more accessible.
But even such a recent and voluminously-documented occurrence as World War II must be dealt with more interpretively than factually. One can reach large, general conclusions about aggression and self-defense; about fault and victimization; about exploitation and gallantry. But specific investigation of particular events and situations reveal that they are not always easily definable in these general terms. (The Holocaust? Dresden? Hiroshima-Nagasaki?)
The best we can do with history is come to some sort of interpretive agreement and represent that as "what actually happened." And inevitably the consensus will be heavily determined by who won the war.
History occasionally tries to misrepresent itself as a "social science," when it really is and always has been one of the humanities. Which means that it springs in largest part from the minds of men and women and has very little means of validation except the mental activities of men and women.
Philosophy, of course, is the Queen of the Humanities; recognizing as it does that it is entirely the work of the wetware and that it owes its very existence as a discipline to the accident that human beings are conscious and self-aware.
It is only with hubris that we speak of "truth" in history and philosophy. If we are honest we recognize that in most cases we are not dealing with hard points of fact but with regions of probability; sometimes only possibility. Nevertheless we bend great effort and expend many man-hours trying to reduce the areas of those regions and increase their percentage of accuracy.
Truth, evidently, is worth seeking, even if we know we will never achieve it.
The study of the humanities is always quite slippery and filled with informational gaps. Because it is the study of human beings, our cultures and our relationships, it is prey to all the prejudices and errors of human interpretation, multiplied by our unwillingness to come off looking bad.
Fortunately, the pursuit of aesthetics is - in its better forms - much less concerned with reputation and much more inclined to deal with the hard truths of the Species.
Paradoxically, it is in the arts - all fashioned out of whole cloth and some artist's quirky individualism - that we find the most accurate and significant representations of humanity.
Lawrence Langner, an impresario and theatrical producer of the early-mid-Twentieth Century, near the end of his life wrote a book entitled, "Lies Like Truth," in which he dealt specifically with this phenomenon.
A play is "Made Up." If it is a good play, it deals accurately and movingly with one or more foibles of the Human Experience. That's one definition of a good play.
makes it memorable: by plugging the lesson into our emotions and nervous systems somewhere ahead of words and analysis.
And that, I guess, is the best definition I can think of for Art.